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Mourning Becomes Justice

Guest post by Michelle Brown

This is the irony or paradox. Political resistance could kill you, well actually the state could in response to your resistance, but the beloved community could save you. Not from physical death. Nothing would do that, not even god. But from meaningless death and despair. One does not negotiate with the state’s use of terror, violent and premature death (actual physical death or disappearance through incarceration). One opposes it and in that opposition finds meaning in black suffering.

– Joy James, “Black Suffering in Search of the ‘Beloved Community’”

Criminal justice in the United States is a project that intersects with race and mortality at every intersection. In laying out this claim, of course, I have the killing of Michael Brown in mind and recent events and actions in Ferguson, Missouri. I also situate this present moment within the growing historical record of patterned, racialized state killing. I mean to point to a kind of disturbance that is foundational, ordinary, routine: Mass incarceration and capital punishment are produced through a host of everyday discretionary decision-making and institutional practices that make up criminal justice, creating the conditions for premature death, like that of Michael Brown. To name only a few of these (and to engage them superficially at best), consider the following:

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Self-Torsion as a Liberating Force in Death Row Art

Many people are surprised to learn that prisons today are overflowing with beautiful new art created by the prisoners themselves. But how do they manage this, under such difficult conditions? In an anthology coming out this August, Philosophy Imprisoned: The Love of Wisdom in the Age of Mass Incarceration, I describe what I think is true of all prison art, a phenomenon which I call it “self-torsion.” By this, I mean the process of attempting to torsion (or twist) yourself into a better version of yourself within institutions such as prisons (but also schools, mental institutions, and military bases) that channel those attempts into greater conformity and exploitation. What led me to search for this concept was being part of a reading group at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Nashville, Tennessee. While discussing all sorts of things in our group, from philosophy and religion to politics and the arts, I was surprised to learn that almost every imprisoned member of our group had years of experience creating art. And the more I experienced of their artworks, the more a kind of pattern began to emerge—but a pattern for which I could not seem to find the right name.

I eventually found that name in the writings of the greatest African-American theorist of the twentieth century, W. E. B. Du Bois, and probably the greatest French theorist of the same century, Michel Foucault. Du Bois had the idea of defining African-American art in order to promote social justice, by fighting the (often unconscious) propaganda of mainstream art (in favor of the status quo) with a new, self-conscious, liberating “propaganda.” In essence, by depicting social injustice directly, the creative resilience of the people who survive that injustice indirectly shines through, and beautifully. And Foucault had the (surprisingly complementary) ideas of ancient self-actualization and the soul-creating powers of modern imprisonment. For my part, then, I combined all three of these ideas to understand how today’s prisons encourage (mostly African-American and Latino) prisoners to recreate their own psyches in the interests of—not the prisoners themselves—but the prisons.

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A Brief History of the Electric Chair

Guest Post by Kelly Oliver, W. Alton Jones Chair of Philosophy, Vanderbilt University

On January 4th, 1903, the famous inventor Thomas Edison electrocuted Topsy, an Asian Elephant and Coney Island circus attraction that had killed three of her trainers, one of whom tried to feed her a lighted cigarette. Edison documented the event, which was also a public spectacle reportedly attended by 1500 people, with his short film entitled “Electrocuting an Elephant.” The film brought together Edison’s most significant inventions, electric lighting, film, and electrocution as a means of instituting the death penalty.

The film was also a publicity stunt on the part of Edison, who waged what he called a “war of currents” with his rival George Westinghouse. Edison had invested himself in direct current electricity while Westinghouse had invested in alternating current, which could be more easily transmitted at higher voltages over cheaper wires. In a campaign to discredit alternating current, Edison tried to convince people that it wasn’t safe, first by using it to electrocute animals and eventually by endorsing it for use in executing humans. Edison reasoned that people would not want the same current flowing into their homes that was used in the electric chair.

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Death and Taxes: The Real Story Behind Tennessee’s Electric Chair

Guest Post by Lisa Guenther, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Vanderbilt University

Yesterday, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill to bring back the electric chair as the default method of execution, should lethal injection drugs become unavailable or unconstitutional. While the first version of the bill restricted its application to death sentences issued after July 2014, a last-minute amendment lifted this restriction, making it applicable to those who are currently on death row. Theoretically, this means that we could be facing an execution by electrocution in Tennessee as early as Oct. 7, when Billy Irick is scheduled to be killed.

It is tempting to decry this return to the electric chair as a “barbaric” lapse into brutal forms of violence that do not befit a democratic nation such as the United States. It is also tempting to affirm this legislation as a more “truthful” display of what is really going on when the state kills, and to hope that the unconcealment of state violence will lead to more vigorous opposition. But it’s not at all clear that more truth leads to more activism, nor that brute violence is incompatible with US democracy.

In order to understand what’s happening in Tennessee – and in other states that are currently going out of their way to kill people, such as Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Utah – we must move beyond moral discourses on the death penalty and trace the material, political connections between state violence, economic inequality, and white supremacy in the United States.

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Soulful Resistance on Tennessee’s Death Row

This week, Vanderbilt Divinity School student Andrew Krinks published an article in The Other Journal based on his interviews with prisoners currently on Tennessee’s death row.  Krinks writes:

To be embodied on death row is to be thoroughly delimited—materially, spatially, and relationally—under another’s control, destined for death strapped to a gurney. As a result, men here have few options but to center their subjectivity beyond the purely material: to be human inside a death machine demands being more than just a body; it demands soulfulness. To understand what it means to be human on Tennessee’s death row, we must look at the material and relational nature of life on death row, the theological frameworks that guide life there, and, finally, the soulful resistance that rehumanizes life in this dehumanizing environment.

Krinks asked the prisoners: “What does this institution want you to know in your body? How does it tell you? How do you hear it?” 

Dan responded first: “They want me to know that they have this body.” After prodding him further to get at how the institution communicates this message, Dan said, “I have to walk through eight locked doors to get from here [open gathering room] to my cell.” Kurt echoed Dan’s response: “They tell you when you can do everything.” And Paul added a similar perspective: “What they tell [my body] is ‘control.’ They tell me how long I can visit with my family and how often.”

And yet, the prisoners also find ways to sustain meaningful relations to others within an institution based on isolation and control:

In terms of their relations with others, it quickly became clear from our interactions that human touch is very important for many of the men on Unit 2. When I entered the room where our first set of interviews would take place, the three men I knew previously and the two who I met for the first time all extended their hands for a handshake that turned into an embrace with the other arm. When I asked them about the extent and nature of physical contact for prisoners on death row, Dan responded, “Not everybody embraces around here, but most of us do. You can’t force it on anyone, but for those who do embrace, it creates communal harmony.” Likewise, Paul said, “Hugs bring about fellowship. It’s more than just coexistence—it’s brotherhood. Our love is unconditional.”

Krinks also asked the prisoners “about the theological concepts that guide their own understandings of the body, the soul, and the relationship between the two.”

On the question of the body, Paul spoke up first, and his answer was met with instantaneous and conclusive agreement: “The body is the temple of God.” On the subject of the soul (or the mind or the spirit),1 my interviewees had significantly more to say. Paul responded, “The spirit is a traveling vehicle—not bound by the laws of man.” Dan said that “The spirit is God breathing the breath of life into you. It’s the living, breathing part of you.”

Krinks’ interviews, and his reflections on these interviews, offer a rare and valuable glimpse into the lives of prisoners on Tennessee’s death row, and a nuanced counter-balance to the mugshots and captions circulated in media reports on the death penalty.

To read Part One of the article, click here.

To read Part Two, click here.

Why does Nicholas Logan support this initiative?

Nicholas Logan is an undergraduate student of philosophy at Vanderbilt University.  Nicholas writes:

Punishments like the death penalty and life-without-parole sentences attribute an essence to the offender: that they are permanently unworthy of being a part of our collective society.  In existentialist terms, these forms of punitive justice deny the possibility of an open future to someone who has committed a crime by denying their existential freedom to change.  If man is, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s words, “the being who hurls himself toward a future and who is conscious of imagining himself as being in the future,” then forms of punishment like permanent incarceration and state-sanctioned death, which deny such future-oriented freedom, are clearly not adequate responses to crime. Permanent incarceration involves entrusting the state and its representatives with endless dominion over the body and freedom of the prisoner. The death penalty denies a convicted criminal an opportunity to change or to make amends for what they have done.

But the harm of extreme punishment goes beyond the individual prisoner; it also affects the existential freedom of the public.  As Lewis Gordon outlines in his work, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism, if man is constantly “in the making,” we act in bad faith whenever we attribute an essence or nature to someone because it denies one’s existential freedom.  When we wordlessly live under a legal system that sanctions the death penalty and life-without-parole prison sentences, we will a world in which it is okay to deny an open future to others and ourselves. Further, we allow ourselves to live under a type of power relationship in which we can deny our responsibility to not only determine what is ethical, but also how to respond to that which is said to be unethical.

To view the full list of signatories to our open letter to stop executions in Tennessee, click here.

If you are a student or educator in Tennessee, and you would like to add your signature to this open letter, click here.

If you are not student or educator in Tennessee, but you would like to support the open letter, please sign this petition.

Why Does Larry May Support This Initiative?

Larry May is W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy, Professor of Law, and Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University.  He is the author of many books, including After War Ends (2012), Global Justice and Due Process (2011), and Genocide: A Normative Account (2010).

 Dr. May writes:

One can be opposed to the death penalty for many good moral reasons that are grounded in principle, such as the principle that the right to life must be respected, or that the state should never intentionally kill one of its own citizens.  But often today people express a different type of reason for why they are opposed to the death penalty, namely, a concern that the institutions responsible for the death penalty in America cannot be trusted to make sure that only those who deserve to die are the one’s who are executed.  This is a contingent objection to the death penalty in its current form and as it is currently administered and it is the position I also support. I don’t see the criminal justice institutions in the United States reforming themselves, or being reformed, sufficiently in the foreseeable future to make it likely that these institutions would guarantee that only those who deserved to die are the ones who are executed.

Specifically three facts are worth mention: 1) the current tendency for prosecutors to engage in wrongdoing so as to get a conviction and to thereby enhance their own prospects of attaining higher political office within their states [See Larry May, “Missouri’s Death Row Cases,” Journal of the Missouri Bar, March/April 2003, pp. 72-79];  2) the likelihood that the defense attorney representing the accused will not be as skilled, or have anything like the same resources, as those of the prosecutor;  and 3) the fact that prosecutors often react to certain kinds of killing in a visceral way, rather than in a reasoned way. Such facts have caused me and many others to lose faith in the promise that only those who deserve to die will be executed. And this is also a reason to have a moratorium on the administration of the death penalty.

To view the full list of signatories to our open letter to stop executions in Tennessee, click here.

If you are a student or educator in Tennessee, and you would like to add your signature to this open letter, click here.

If you are not student or educator in Tennessee, but you would like to support the open letter, please sign this petition.

Why Does Dr. Leigh Johnson Support This Initiative?

Dr. Leigh Johnson teaches Philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis.  This is what she had to say about the initiative to stop executions in Tennessee on her blog, ReadMoreWriteMoreThinkMoreBeMore:

As a philosopher, I can understand, even if not sympathize with, the fact that many still believe the death penalty to be just another form of punishment, differing from other legal penalties in degree but not in kind.  I believe the difference is a difference in kind, and that any Court or any State that exercises its authority in this way is the weaker for it.  Even if I could find some way to relieve my moral objections to capital punishment, I would still find it impossible to sanction its current application and practice. There is an ever-widening gulf that separates those with access to adequate legal counsel from those without it, those who the court system considers without prejudice and those who it exercises prejudice against, offenders who we treat as if they can be reformed and offenders who we treat as if they are best discarded.  Until that gulf is eliminated, justice and fairness remain but a charade.

To view the full list of signatories to our open letter to stop executions in Tennessee, click here.

If you are a student or educator in Tennessee, and you would like to add your signature to this open letter, click here.

If you are not student or educator in Tennessee, but you would like to support the open letter, please sign this petition.